Centre plans immuno-contraception for monkeys as attacks on humans rise
To control India’s millions of common monkeys, the rhesus macaques, that have become more numerous and bolder, resulting in tragic and gruesome incidents such as the one in Agra this week when an infant was snatched from the mother and killed by a monkey, the government is considering vaccines that can make them sterile, although experts aren’t convinced this will work.
They point to failed attempts to combat the monkey menace through sterilisation in Himachal Pradesh and Agra and say the most significant way to handle the issue is to prevent people from feeding them, and also stop their access to leftovers.
That’s easier said than done in a country where monkeys are considered holy and worshipped in some parts. Usually, populations of wild animals are limited by availability of food and predators. Feeding monkeys also encourages them to attack humans whom they see as people who provide food.
Himachal Pradesh has sterilised at least 1.4 million monkeys since 2006, resulting in a fall in their numbers from about 3.2 million in 2004 to about 2.1 million in 2015, but the programme has had mixed results and the numbers themselves aren’t authoritative. The state has declared monkeys as “vermin” under the Wildlife Protection Act in 2017 in 10 districts, allowing for their culling. No monkey population surveys have been done in other states.
A lack of understanding of monkey behaviour and biology has led to conflict escalating and monkeys becoming even more aggressive, say experts. “It’s obvious that sterilisation didn’t lower conflict, which is why even with a reduction in numbers, Himachal had to declare monkeys to be vermin. We know that monkey bite cases increased after sterilisation. Catching them to sterilise them destroys a very complex social structure. They start imprinting humans and become even more aggressive. They are not like dogs, who like humans,” said activist Gauri Maulekhi, trustee of Union minister Menaka Gandhi’s non-profit organisation, People for Animals (PFA). She is a petitioner in a number of cases on animal rights.
“In a very old case called New Friends Colony residents Vs Union of India, the court suggested sterilisation of monkeys in Delhi. But we recently submitted that immuno-contraception may be a safer idea,” she added. According to research by PFA based on the pilot sterilisation project carried out in Agra, sterilisation can cost up to Rs 37,000 per monkey.
Jaysimha Nuggehalli, animal rights lawyer and head of Humane Society International in India, said none of this may work. “You have to understand that monkeys are not territorial.They move in troops. Sterilisation works if they are contained in one place and other monkeys are not moving in from other places. They will come wherever there is easy access to food. Plus, since they imprint humans, they lose their fear. I don’t think immuno-contraception will work either because they will keep moving. I think the only way to stop this is to stop feeding them and to stop leaving food waste on roads. Singapore solved its primate problem by changing the design of their dustbins for example.”
There are other problems in immuno-contraception as well, according to Satish K Gupta, emeritus scientist, National Institute of Immunology who is working on developing contraceptive vaccines for wild animals like elephants and monkeys. He says targeting monkeys with dart guns to vaccinate them will be extremely difficult. Other modes of administration need to be considered.
So successful has the rhesus monkey been in adapting to urban conditions that it has spread to southern India from its habitual haunt in the north. Sindhu Radhakrishna, professor and dean of animal behaviour and cognition programme at National Institute of Advanced Studies (NIAS), Bangalore along with other primatology experts says: “They are being seen more than bonnet macaques which was the dominant population in Hyderabad and parts of Andhra Pradesh. We believe this could be due to indiscriminate translocation of rhesus macaques. They are also coming out to be the more dominant species among macaques because of their close association with human habitation in both urban and rural areas.” She agrees that sterilisation hasn’t worked, and immuno-contraception also may not yield results.
“Population control is a long-term strategy. The sterlised monkeys are going to be around and will continue to interact. Immuno-contraception is also a very difficult process because targeting them can be complicated. The main problenm is that monkeys have attractive, easy energy rich food in human areas because humans either provision them or have food waste lying around. Monkeys will obviously not forage vast areas when food is available. There is ample scope for foraging”, she added.
In other words, monkeys like to hand around humans because they have easy access to food. But the result is more conflict.
Another problem with sterilisation that authorities didn’t foresee is that monkeys have very strong, stable matrilines. “When an animal is pulled out of a group its broken from the matriline and their social hierarchy. After sterilisation when they are put back, individuals often end up with new groups or families leading to aggressive behaviour amongst themselves,” Sindhu explained.